Noie: Dick Enberg helped Notre Dame basketball program step on national stage

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Sharing stories by cell phone Saturday while running errands, which included picking up a prescription before purchasing $20 worth of Powerball tickets, Digger Phelps doubled down on college basketball history.

It’s considered that the brash and boastful, determined and driven Phelps single-handedly put the Notre Dame program on the college basketball map in the 1970s. He won 393 games, a record that still stands for at least another week. He beat a top-ranked team seven times. He took the program to its only Final Four in 1978. He made the place more than just a football school.

Phelps insists that it was about more than just him. It also was about a man born in Mount Clemens, Mich., in 1935. A man who earned a master’s and a doctorate in health sciences from Indiana University. A man who’s signature call – “Oh, My!” – became synonymous with big games for decades.

Who put Notre Dame basketball on the map? Phelps gets credit, but selflessly volunteers to share it with sportscaster Dick Enberg, who died of a heart attack Thursday at his La Jolla, Calif., home at the age of 82.

“Dick was the one who sold our program,” Phelps said Saturday. “He helped us recruit kids to Notre Dame. He helped us build our national schedule.

“He made Notre Dame basketball.”

So it wasn’t just Digger? No, said Digger.

“We were a team,” Phelps said. “I coached and he did play by play.”

Enberg was on the call of the greatest victory in Notre Dame basketball history, a game still considered one of the top upsets in all of sports. Enberg, with color commentary help from then-New Orleans Jazz play-by-play voice “Hot Rod” Hundley, was at center court at the old 11,418-seat Athletic and Convocation Center the afternoon of Jan. 19, 1974.

He was there when Notre Dame snapped UCLA’s 88-game unbeaten streak with a 71-70 victory thanks to a corner jumper from Dwight Clay.

“The game,” Phelps said, “made college basketball.”

It also helped to make Enberg a household name, someone who would go on to call golf and tennis and baseball, call Final Fours and Super Bowls, all with the same steadiness he showed that day in South Bend. It was a call that came from nowhere in a game going that same direction.

Nobody expected Clay to connect from the corner. Or for UCLA to go scoreless over the final three minutes. Or for fans to come tumbling out of the stands to celebrate the improbable. Look at press row on the grainy seven-minute YouTube video. Media along the far sideline are all seated in the same way – hands pressed against their faces, almost bored while waiting for another UCLA win to go final so they can gather their quotes, write their words and get out of town.

Even Enberg voiced a dubious opinion after UCLA dropped Notre Dame into a 70-59 hole.

“Time running out on the Irish!”

History had other ideas. Time soon enough was running with the Irish after three-straight baskets made it 70-65.

“It’s pandemonium now!”

A Gary Brokaw bucket made it 70-67.

“There’s some that believe that this will be the day at Notre Dame!”

While bedlam busted out around the building, Enberg stayed steady. There was an energy to his voice, but not over-the-top, carnival act of today’s look-at-me TV acts. Enberg just never went there.

“He was so cool, calm and collected,” Phelps said.

Even when Brokaw scored again to make it 70-69.

“One minute left. Seventy to 69. UCLA’s 88-game win streak in immediate jeopardy now.”

Setting the scene

Fewer than 45 seconds remained in a one-point game when Enberg found just the right time to frame what this meant between the two coaches. John Wooden had already won nine national championships, including the previous seven in a row. Phelps still was about as green on the big stage of college basketball as the carnation he wore in his suit lapel.

Enberg talked of Wooden – he referred to him as John Robert Wooden — joining the U.S. Navy for World War II, right around the time Phelps was born. At the time of the game, Wooden was 63 years old. Phelps was a mere 32.

Phelps still remembers the sequence.

“He had so much to add to what was going on that day,” he said. “It was crazy. He was amazing.”

This was back when broadcasts didn’t have any graphics – really none of any kind – to keep viewers appraised of game situations. How many timeouts did teams have? Fouls? Who had possession? What was the score? Heck, how much time remained?

Enberg made sure to set the scene as the final seconds played out with Notre Dame down one and the ball.

“Thirty four (seconds), 33, 32, 31. …. That’s Clay who scores! The first time the Irish have led in the game, 71-70. Timeout UCLA with the score, Notre Dame 71, UCLA 70!”

No yapping endlessly about Clay. About the day. About Phelps. About the streak. About the rematch out in Los Angeles seven days later. Just by-the-book professionalism from Enberg, who 10 days prior had turned 39.

“He always had a way about him when he called a game,” Phelps said. “He had a class about his delivery that was second to none.”

Back from a commercial break, Enberg informed viewers of the TVS broadcast that because of a power failure, those in the southwest would be unable to watch the Arkansas-Rice game, but to be sure to stay tuned for Missouri and Kansas State.

Notre Dame was six seconds from history.

Three missed shots from UCLA and a John Shumate rebound later, it was over. Fans flooded the floor. UCLA left losers for the first time in a long time. Enberg painted the picture.

“The No.1 ranked UCLA Bruins have been upset by the Irish of Notre Dame, 71-70 …. The longest win streak in collegiate sports history has ended where it began three years ago.”

Enberg would call many memorable college basketball games, including the 1979 national championship game between Indiana State and Michigan State, still the highest-rated televised basketball game in history. He was there for Notre Dame’s upset of top-ranked Virginia in 1981. He even was there for the last Notre Dame football national championship in the 1989 Fiesta Bowl.

Hearing Friday morning of Enberg’s death, Phelps thought a lot about him. About his call in the 1974 game. About what it meant for his coaching career and his program. About their friendship. About a bond that never was broken.

“He,” Phelps said, “was a classic.”

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Former Notre Dame coach Digger Phelps believes Dick Enberg played a critical role in the program's rise during the 1970s. (AP File Photo/LENNY IGNELZI)